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Language Spotlight: Traditional vs Simplified Chinese

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Although we tend to think of languages as timeless, they are constantly evolving in response to events and fashions. New words and phrases are being coined all the time, as old ones fall from grace. The same is also true of written languages – consider how manuscripts in Shakespeare’s time often juxtaposed ‘v’ and ‘u’, or used ‘f’ instead of ‘s’.

Other languages have also seen dramatic changes in their written form, though few have evolved as suddenly as Chinese in the 1950s. The ruling Communist Party decided to simplify the way the Mandarin language was written, as it often combined multiple character components into one symbol. The resulting intricacy was felt to be holding back literacy levels in a country with limited academic resources for its widely dispersed rural population. As a result, Simplified Chinese was introduced, with fewer strokes needed to write a character and fewer characters in common use. The resulting character set was generally agreed to be easier to read in smaller fonts, and easier for new Chinese speakers to learn and write.

A great leap forward?

Although this was intended to improve the Chinese language, many people objected to the State-sponsored simplification of a language rich in detail and forged over a thousand years. In many cases, Simplified Chinese adopted symbols for one word to describe something completely different. The Traditional Chinese symbol for ‘face’ became the Simplified Chinese symbol for both ‘face’ and ‘noodle’. The only Traditional characters unaffected by these changes were the ones felt to be relatively simple already, such as the representation of a person (人).

Other conflicts between Traditional and Simplified Chinese arose outside China itself. A number of other countries were (and still are) heavily dependent on the Chinese language. And while Singapore and Malaysia quickly adopted Simplified  Chinese, other countries including Taiwan and Hong Kong remained wedded to the older form of writing. This created unnecessary barriers between these countries, making it harder (though not impossible) for cross-border communications to take place. In general, it’s easier for a Traditional speaker to understand the Simplified version than the other way around.

With 900 million people speaking a version of Mandarin, the schism in its written form is unfortunate. And since Traditional Chinese characters provide more pronunciation guidance, it’s actually easier for people to vocalise characters more accurately than it is with Simplified text. Also, since one Simplified character could have several unrelated meanings, its use has to be judged in context to a greater extent. Think of the use of ‘set’ in English – a set of tennis, to set a test, a set custard, etc.

Chinese democracy

Of course, it could be argued that giving people the choice between Traditional and Simplified Chinese is fair and reasonable – a democratic choice in a proudly Communist nation. However, it poses challenges for marketing professionals and non-native speakers when attempting to launch or promote their products and services in Chinese-speaking nations. It may be necessary to present an advertising campaign in Simplified Chinese for the population of Shenzhen, and then translate it into Traditional Chinese for residents a few miles across the border in the Hong Kong town of Fanling. For instance, Simplified Chinese removes the ‘heart’ symbol from the character denoting love, changing the word’s context and meaning once it’s written down.

These subtle linguistic variations are a key reason why automated translation services will never accurately differentiate between Traditional and Simplified Chinese. Only a native Mandarin speaker will be able to distinguish between the two, and make judgements about context and meaning. One character means ‘heart-warming’ in Traditional Chinese, but ‘a heart filled with anger’ in Simplified Chinese. It would be easy for an inexperienced or automated translation service to cause confusion, amusement or even offence, just as Chinese-to-English translations sometimes sound amateurish to our ears.

This is where Language Connect’s experts can help. Our native speakers have a natural understanding of the subtle (yet significant) differences between Traditional and Simplified Chinese. They can translate quickly and instinctively, ensuring that your marketing and communications will be optimised for its target audience – getting the right message across.

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